The lure of Iglesia: Recruitment and the perks

MANILA, Philippines – Ka Dory, now 44, still recalls the first time she entered a church of the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) 1986 when she was a young lass of 16. The former Catholic choir girl says she felt goosebumps. 

Ang maganda kasi nakahiwalay talaga si babae at si lalaki sa kapilya. 'Yun ho talaga ang nagustuhan kong una. Sa Katoliko, makikita po natin sama-sama. Ang ingay, di ba? Imbes na manalangin ka eh maririnig mo talaga. Sa Iglesia, yung solemne ng pagsamba talagang maaano talaga ng isang tao (It's good that they separate men and women inside the church. It's the first thing I liked. In the Catholic church, you can see that they are mixed. It's noisy, isn't it? Instead of praying, what you hear is the noise. In Iglesia, you can feel the solemnity of going to church),” Dory narrated in an interview with Rappler at her residence in barangay San Isidro in Montalban, Rizal.

This is how the recruitment begins for converts like Dory. One is invited to an Iglesia service and is later encouraged to study the 24 doctrines of the church, all of which he must accept if he wants to be a member of the church.

Iglesia requires dedication of one's heart, body, and soul in a way that other churches don't. They are forbidden from getting drunk. They cannot eat food concoctions mixed with blood. They cannot marry someone who is not a member of the Church. In elections, they must vote for candidates selected by the Church. (READ: Faith in action: The practices of Iglesia ni Cristo and The Catholic Church and Iglesia ni Cristo: Major differences)

That's not all. There's a 6-month-long process called "Pagsubok" or trial, where recruits have to go to church regularly. Only after they've complied with these requirements can he be baptized to become a member of Iglesia. 

For children who grew up going to the church, called "Handog," like former Alagad representative Rodante Marcoleta, the doctrinal studies usually begin at 10.

The doctrines must be followed strictly and members are monitored by their respective overseers. Disobey and one may face the threat of expulsion from the church. 

This strictness that turns off outsiders is the very same strictness that lures the believers. "Kung hindi tayo babawalan, tuluy-tuloy na nakakagawa tayo ng kasalanan. Sa Iglesia talaga, halos lahat na lang ng pagbabawal na puwede i-apply ay gagawin para mapanuto po ang pamumuhay," said Dory. (If there are no prohibitions, we continually commit sin. In Iglesia, almost all prohibitions that can be applied are applied so that one's way of life does not go wayward.)

When asked what he does when he disobeys the doctrines, a young member of the church said, "I pray that they don't find out. I pray that I don't die or get kicked out of the church before I can change my ways."

Members who have been expelled may return to the church as "Balik loob." They will go through "Pagsubok" again.

Life-changing

Dory's mother was the first to join INC. Dory recalled how she tried for 5 years to evade her invitation to attend a service. When in 1986 she finally caved in, she said she got goosebumps when she entered the Church in Cogeo.

Pagpasok kong ganon, kasi may awit, kinilabutan ako na hindi ko maintindihan ang nararamdaman ko. Pag-uwi ko sinabi ko sa Mama ko, "Sige Mama, mag-ano nga ako magpadoktrina nga ako," Dory recalled. (When I entered, I heard the choir and I got goosebumps. I couldn't understand what I was feeling. When we got home, I told my mother that I would want to learn the doctrines.)

The minister's message struck her to the core, too. "Tungkol po yoon sa magulang at anak. Pagmamahalan ng isang magulang sa anak. At ang dapat na ibigay na paggalang sa magulang nila," Dory said. (It was about parents and their children. Parents should love their children and children should respect their parents.)

She comes from a broken family. Her parents separated when she was young and her mother later had a relationship with a married man. When her mother joined Iglesia, their lives changed. Her mother told her partner to go back to his wife even if they already had kids. 

"Ito yung naging buhay niya. Pumasok siya sa ganoong sitwasyon. Noong nag-Iglesia siya, automatic na noong nalaman niya na ang aral ay bawal pala ito, nagdesisyon siya. 'Maghiwalay na tayo bumalik ka na sa pamilya mo kasi eto na ako. Doon po siya nagbago. Bawal pala yun," Dory recalled. (This became her life. She got herself into that situation. When she converted, it became automatic – when she found out it was prohibited – she made a decision. "Let's break up, go back to your family because this is what I am now. That's when she changed. She found out it was prohibited.)

Now married with 4 children, Dory goes to the Iglesia church inside "Erap City" in Montalban, Rizal, where many residents are Iglesia members. There are several INC churches inside the socialized housing city, too.

Dory said the doctrines of Iglesia on the family are what she values best up to this day.

ERAP CITY: Iglesia ni Cristo has a number of churches inside the Montalban's socialized housing city. Rappler photo

ERAP CITY: Iglesia ni Cristo has a number of churches inside the Montalban's socialized housing city.

Rappler photo

Basic services

Iglesia ni Cristo has a centralized structure akin to a government. It has its own rules and systems governing its own people. INC also provides its members a wide array of services. 

"The church has a centralized structure. It's like government. Kung ikukumpara mo, may tinatawag silang purok. 'Yung local, that is the town. Pagkatapos regional at national," explained Marcoleta. (When you compare them, they have what they call a purok. The local structure is the town, then regional and national.)

It's a top-down organization that allows the INC to cascade its instructions down to the members and see to it that they remain faithful to the doctrines. Dory, for example, serves as the overseer of about 100 Iglesia households in barangay San Isidro in Montalban, located just outside Erap City where they go to Church. 

It's the same cohesive organization that allows the church to assist its members in their basic necessities like housing and employment. "It's a way of life that traverses into the economic aspect of their members and how members exercise their political rights. It's all part of the doctrines," Marcoleta explained.

Dory is not only the spiritual adviser for the INC members in the neighborhood, she acts like a barangay captain of sorts, assisting them when they need financial assistance from the municipal hall. She even talks to Meralco personnel to beg that they don't cut electricity in households that fail to pay their bills on time.

The church has its own job placement office to help members find jobs. Dory's daughter is a beneficiary. She got a job in SM, one the companies that prefers to hire Iglesia members because they are not allowed to join unions.

Housing for members is one that INC has also put a lot of focus on. It was because of INC's request from the municipality that Dory and her Iglesia neighbors found a place at the government relocation site outside Erap City.

"Kami na-relocate dito from Antipolo. Ang Iglesia ang nag-asikaso. Sila po mismo nag-request [sa munisipyo] na dito kami sama-sama ilagay. Kung nasa ibang relihiyon ka naman, baka kung saan lang kami natapon," said Dory. (We were relocated here from Antipolo. Iglesia arranged everything. They were the ones who requested from the municipal government that we be put here together. Had we been with another religion, we would probably have been thrown elsewhere.)

'Complete communities'

INC members are usually neighbors. Given Iglesia's strict doctrines, it can be a challenge for members to live in a neighborhood of different religious sects. Dory and her neighbors were likely put there because it's just beside Erap City, where there are many INC members and several INC churches.

The socialized housing city served as the center piece of the housing program of former President Joseph Estrada, whom INC backed in the 1998 presidential elections. It's no surprise that many INC members benefitted from the program. 

And this is where members see the benefits of bloc voting. Politicians who have been endorsed by the Church have been very helpful to the members. "Kapag sinunod namin ang kaisahan namin [sa pagboto], talagang mapapabuti ka. Sasabihin ng Katolikong [kandidato], ibinoto ako nito kasi taga-Iglesia. Kahit papaano may tulong," Dory said. (If we follow orders on who to vote for, it works to our advantage. The Catholic candidate will say, I was chosen because of Iglesia. It helps.)

In other parts of the country, INC has been building exclusive enclaves for its members. There's Tagumpay Village in nearby barangay San Jose, a gated community of INC members. Marcoleta also spoke of new houses they are building in typhoon-ravaged Tacloban City. 

It can be difficult for INC members when they see other neighbors engage in activities forbidden in their doctrines. Dory said she has to remind fellow church members not to join when neighbors start drinking or to keep quiet when they are fighting.

"When the church builds, it builds a total community. We are now discussing if it's possible for the church to build a powerplant. Even that one, iniisip na (we're still thinking about)," said Marcoleta.

Improving image

The homegrown church has its share of critics because of doctrines that dictate on its members and how it has used its bloc voting to advance its interests. But on its centennial year, the members are enjoying what they see as a marked improvement in their image to outsiders.

Marcoleta knows the big structures INC has been building has a lot to do with it. "People are asking: How come you are able to build a magnificent edifice considering the church is relatively poor and relatively small?" (WATCH: 'Largest theater on earth' shows Iglesia influence)

"I really feel proud. Biglang umugong. Sa mga circle of friends ko na lang, ngayon lang sila nag-express ng "Paano ba ang pag-anib diyan?" I'm not saying aanib sila pero 'yun lang tinanong niya sa akin. All these years they have not been opening up such an issue. 'Paano ang process diyan?' They begin to be encouraged probably or be interested," he added.

(I really feel proud. All of a sudden, we're getting attention. In my circle of friends, it's only now that I'm hearing them ask, "How does one become a member?" I'm not saying they will become members but that's all I was asked. All these years they have not been opening up such an issue. "What's the process there?" They begin to be encouraged probably or be interested.)

Marcoleta is hopeful this will translate to the further growth of the Iglesia membership. – Rappler.com